The Case for a Part-Time Legislature

Ask Pennsylvanians what comes to mind when they hear the words “state government,” and the responses will regularly include corruption, late budgets, cronyism, wasteful spending, and ineffectiveness.  In a January Franklin & Marshall College poll, only 16% of Pennsylvania voters said the state legislature was doing a “good” job.

It’s not surprising, then, that the idea of returning Pennsylvania’s legislature to part-time is gaining steam given the lack of trust in our elected officials.

With a price tag that’s grown to $300 million, Pennsylvania’s 253-member General Assembly is the most expensive (and second largest) state legislature in the country.  It’s also among the four most “professionalized” in the nation, with staff totaling nearly 3,000. For perspective, the legislatures of Illinois and Ohio – the states closest in population to Pennsylvania – have 1,023 and 465 staff, respectively.   

The annual salary for rank-and-file Pennsylvania legislators ($78,314) is the fourth-highest in the country, trailing only those in California, Michigan, and New York.  However, the total cost to taxpayers for each legislator includes much more than salary. Perks and benefits for Pennsylvania lawmakers include: health, dental, vision and prescription drug coverage valued at over $16,000; a pension that is among the most generous in America; lifetime post-retirement health care; and tax-free per diem payments of $163 per day when lawmakers are attending legislative committee meetings or in session. Recent news reports revealed per diems are more than enough to cover rent or a mortgage payment, and many legislators have bought homes near the Capitol while collecting per diems for their lodging.   

The combination of lucrative compensation and benefits with an absence of term limits has created a culture of political entitlement and corruption in Harrisburg.  From the 2005 pay raise, to the conviction of former state Sen. Vince Fumo, to the ongoing “Bonusgate” investigation, the list of Harrisburg’s scandals is long indeed. The Department of Justice gives Pennsylvania an “F” for its limited disclosure of legislators’ assets, holdings, and related information. A Dec. 2008 USA TODAY analysis of Department of Justice statistics ranks Pennsylvania tied with Florida as the 11th most corrupt state in the union (with 4.5 public officials convicted for every 100,000 residents).

While the cost of the General Assembly has skyrocketed, Pennsylvania’s economy has remained stagnant.  For the period 1991-2009, the Keystone State ranked: 43rd in job growth, 48th in personal income growth, and 47th in population growth.  In 1977, with a part-time legislature, the Commonwealth had the 22nd heaviest tax burden; today, Pennsylvania ranks 11th in state and local tax burden per capita and 45th in economic freedom.

There is a direct link between our full-time legislature and our state economy.  A Commonwealth Foundation analysis shows a strong connection between legislative professionalization and higher spending per capita, a higher tax burden, and less economic freedom. Specifically, each increase in the level of professionalization results in an estimated $441 increase in spending per person, and a 0.4% increase in taxes as a percentage of income.  For highly professionalized legislatures, like Pennsylvania’s, the effect is five times those estimates.

In contrast, consider the case of Texas.  The Lone Star State has twice the population of Pennsylvania and is four times the size of the Keystone State geographically. Yet, the Texas legislature meets once every two years for 140 days to produce a biennial budget.  When Texas lawmakers need to deal with emergency situations or revise their budget, they return for a limited, special session.  During its 2007 session, Texas’ legislature passed 1,672 bills, while Pennsylvania’s full-time General Assembly passed less than one-fifth that number.

Over the last two years, Texas has created more jobs than Pennsylvania and the other 48 states combined!

With a part-time legislature, lawmakers could be doctors, farmers, and small business owners who come to Harrisburg for a few weeks each year to make laws, and then go home to live and work under the laws they created. If this were the reality, only the most pressing issues would be addressed, leaving greater freedom for the Commonwealth to prosper.

There is convincing evidence that restoring the General Assembly to part-time, citizen legislature would result in lower taxes, more efficient government, and less corruption.

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Nathan Benefield is  Director of Policy Research for the Commonwealth Foundation (, an independent, nonprofit public policy research and educational institute based in Harrisburg.